China's race to turn trash to cash

Zoe Aslop
Chinese Greenpeace activists set up an E-waste sculpture.
China Photos | Getty Images

China's unregulated junk buyers have transformed the electronic garbage of wealthy countries into small fortunes for years, fueling factories with raw materials and spare parts and often tainting rivers with toxic runoff. As trade flourished at the margins of manufacturing boomtowns, China became the world's biggest importer of electronic waste, even as it produced more of the stuff at home.

Now the government is teaming up with the private sector, deploying the brains behind Baidu, one of the world's most powerful search engines, state of the art recycling technology, and a raft of costly subsidies as it races to collect electronic waste before urban trash pickers channel it into the country's vast, unregulated junk industry.

"We were searching for a way to get away from the informal sector, where there are all of these health and environmental hazards and get it into the formal sector where you can manage it better," said Patrick Haverman, deputy country director for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Beijing.

The UNDP worked with Baidu's Big Data Lab and TCL, an electronics manufacturer, which has been recycling e-waste since 2009. The result is a light application that will use visual recognition technology and big data to offer consumers a price on their old stuff.

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Accessing a website developed by Baidu, users upload pictures of their old technology and, if the price is right, set a time for delivery to a government-approved clean recycling facility.

"Those informal workers are very localized -- they have troops that scan community by community for the e-waste collection," said Wu Peng, program manager for UNDP's Energy and Environment Team. "There is no way for TCL to hire so many people."

While local scrappers use their manpower to shout through windows and rattle up and down stairwells, TCL can ride Baidu's app right into their pockets.

The cost of competing

All of this is costly. To make officially sanctioned facilities like those built by TCL competitive with risky mom and pop enterprises, the government pays steep subsidies for each device they recycle. Even then, it's unlikely they'll be able to beat the prices offered by informal outfits that refurbish products and reuse parts bringing in a much better margin than the raw materials large automated recycling plants churn out.

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"The government subsidized program just isn't competitive with the street," said Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, a book investigating the global trash industry. "There's more money to be made repairing and refurbishing appliances or breaking them down to usable parts."

Even if consumers can be convinced to accept less money for the sake of the environment, sending trucks out for single pickups is not sustainable.

"You need scale to make it work," said Minter. "Somebody needs to figure out a collection network so that you actually get an economy of scale."

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And scale is where Baidu's application may triumph in the long run.

Baidu's Big Data Lab began to predict movement: the mass migration of urban workers to rural hometowns for New Year celebrations, the microscopic seep of flu pathogens as they fan out from, say, the blood of a sick pig to transportation hubs across the country, even the frequency with which a soccer ball will slip past a goalie's fingertips in the World Cup.

TCL hopes to use Baidu's data on what sorts of products are disposed of when and where to predict the flow of junk, optimizing routes and locating recycling stations more strategically over time.

"Using Baidu's big data technology for analyzing and processing industry data, we can better understand the recycling needs in different areas and make our existing and future recycling stations more efficient," said Senior Vice-President of TCL Corporation Mr. Shi Wanwen at a press conference announcing the launch of the app.

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There is undoubtedly a long way to go.

Eventually UNDP's Peng sees a time when technology will make the same sort of trade possible through official channels.

"This is just the first step," said UNDP's Peng. "The next step is how to make this recycling part of the repair, maintenance and promotion of new products."